Just got off the phone with Simon Cowell. Rather, off the Fox phone conference with the American Idol judge, which is nowhere near the same thing. Feeling a little bit like a contestant who came all the way from Canada for an Idol audition but didn’t get a chance to sing.

The way these telephone conferences work, you dial a top secret number, give them your name and affiliation and get in line. Once the conference starts, you press a “1” and the “#” key and you are in line with your question.

The conference lasted about 25 minutes and then was abruptly shut down. No chance to ask follow ups, no chance to grab exclusives in a scrum. This will be the norm this winter as dozens of critics normally in Pasadena or L.A. this time of year attending the semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour find themselves marooned in their home posts due to the on-going writer’s strike.

Which brings me back to my question for Cowell: sure, his reality series neatly sidesteps the whole writer’s strike mess because it is outside the Guild. But is it impacted at all by the writers strike? Are any of the big name mentors refusing to go on this season in alliance with striking TV writers? And what is Cowell’s take on what the strike is doing to the whole TV business?

Unfortunately, I never got to ask my question and no one else brought it up, either. Instead, we got more teasing pot shots at Cowell’s fellow judge, Paula Abdul. “She’s an emotional girl,” said Cowell when asked about her crying jags on the U.S. cable reality series Hey Paula. “A lot of it is the Paula I know which is why I stopped watching.”

As for past Idol winner Taylor Hicks being dropped by his record label, Cowell said he wasn’t overly surprised. Hicks was never the best singer, Cowell maintains, just the most popular contestant.


He goes on record saying this year’s crop of auditioners are a cut above the rookies from the last few seasons. “I think personally it’s one of the strongest years we’ve had in a long time,” he said, adding that these latest kids were “younger,” and “more current” and not just “talented puppets.”

Asked by David Bauder of The Associate Press about the dip in ratings last April and May, Cowell admitted that “last year just wasn’t one of our better seasons.” He doesn’t think the series has peaked, however, suggesting that strong brands such as Idol and Dancing With The Stars (which Cowell thought was terrific this season) should continue to dominate.

As for Sanjaya Malakar, the mop-haired finalist from last season, Cowell says he did fret when the kid hung in after “some absolutely horrific performances” but, looking back, he feels the stunt did not harm the show. He feels Howard Stern’s assertion that his listeners influenced the voting by keeping the worst singer in the hunt was way overstated.
American Idol returns next Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m on Fox and CTV with two two-hour audition shows. How did that go this time? “It gets on your nerves,” says Cowell, who, when asked, couldn’t single anyone out for the critic from San Antonio, Texas, Jeanne Jakle. “It’s all a blur.”

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